THE PLAYING FIELDS OF GRIT - GROWING GRIT FROM THE OUTSIDE IN - Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth (2016)



One day, when she was about four years old, my daughter Lucy sat at the kitchen table, struggling to open a little box of raisins. She was hungry. She wanted those raisins. But the top of that box stubbornly resisted her efforts. After a minute or so, she put down the unopened box with a sigh and wandered off. I was watching from another room, and I nearly gasped. Oh god, my daughter has been defeated by a box of raisins! What are the odds she’ll grow up to have any grit?

I rushed over and encouraged Lucy to try again. I did my best to be both supportive and demanding. Nevertheless, she refused.

Not long after, I found a ballet studio around the corner and signed her up.

Like a lot of parents, I had a strong intuition that grit is enhanced by doing activities like ballet … or piano … or football … or really any structured extracurricular activity. These activities possess two important features that are hard to replicate in any other setting. First, there’s an adult in charge—ideally, a supportive and demanding one—who is not the parent. Second, these pursuits are designed to cultivate interest, practice, purpose, and hope. The ballet studio, the recital hall, the dojo, the basketball court, the gridiron—these are the playing fields of grit.

The evidence on extracurricular activities is incomplete. I cannot point to a single study in which kids have been randomly assigned to play a sport or musical instrument, compete on the debate team, hold an after-school job, or work on the school newspaper. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize why. No parent wants to volunteer their kids to do things (or not) by the flip of a coin, and for ethical reasons, no scientist can really force kids to stay in (or out) of activities.

Nevertheless, as a parent and as a social scientist, I would recommend that, as soon as your child is old enough, you find something they might enjoy doing outside of class and sign them up. In fact, if I could wave a magic wand, I’d have all the children in the world engage in at least one extracurricular activity of their choice, and as for those in high school, I’d require that they stick with at least one activity for more than a year.

Do I think every moment of a child’s day should be scripted? Not at all. But I do think kids thrive when they spend at least some part of their week doing hard things that interest them.

Like I said, the evidence for such a bold recommendation is incomplete. But the research that has been done is, in my view, highly suggestive. Put it all together, and you have a compelling case for kids learning grit at the elbow of a wise ballet instructor, football coach, or violin teacher.

For starters, a few researchers have equipped kids with beepers so that, throughout the day, they can be prompted to report on what they’re doing and how they feel at that very moment. When kids are in class, they report feeling challenged—but especially unmotivated. Hanging out with friends, in contrast, is not very challenging but super fun. And what about extracurricular activities? When kids are playing sports or music or rehearsing for the school play, they’re both challenged and having fun. There’s no other experience in the lives of young people that reliably provides this combination of challenge and intrinsic motivation.

The bottom line of this research is this: School’s hard, but for many kids it’s not intrinsically interesting. Texting your friends is interesting, but it’s not hard. But ballet? Ballet can be both.

In-the-moment experience is one thing, but what about long-term benefits? Do extracurriculars pay off in any measurable way?

There are countless research studies showing that kids who are more involved in extracurriculars fare better on just about every conceivable metric—they earn better grades, have higher self-esteem, are less likely to get in trouble and so forth. A handful of these studies are longitudinal, meaning that researchers waited to see what happened to kids later in life. These longer-term studies come to the same conclusion: more participation in activities predicts better outcomes.

The same research clearly indicates that overdosing on extracurriculars is pretty rare. These days, the average American teenager reports spending more than three hours a day watching television and playing video games. Additional time is drained away checking social media feeds, texting friends links to cat videos, and tracking the Kardashians as they figure out which outfit to wear—which makes it hard to argue that time can’t be spared for the chess club or the school play, or just about any other structured, skill-focused, adult-guided activity.

But what about grit? What about accomplishing something that takes years, as opposed to months, of work? If grit is about sticking with a goal for the long-term, and if extracurricular activities are a way of practicing grit, it stands to reason that they’re especially beneficial when we do them for more than a year.

In fact, lessons learned while working to improve from one season to the next come up repeatedly in my interviews with paragons of grit.

Here’s an example: After a lackluster passing season his junior year of high school football, future NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young went down to the high school woodshop and fashioned a wooden football with tape for laces. In one end, he screwed in an eye hook and used that to latch the football to a weight machine in the high school gym. Then, gripping the ball, he’d move it back and forth in a passing motion, the added resistance developing his forearms and shoulders. His passing yardage doubled the next year.

Even more convincing evidence for the benefits of long-term extracurricular activities comes from a study conducted by psychologist Margo Gardner. Margo and her collaborators at Columbia University followed eleven thousand American teenagers until they were twenty-six years old to see what effect, if any, participating in high school extracurriculars for two years, as opposed to just one, might have on success in adulthood.

Here’s what Margo found: kids who spend more than a year in extracurriculars are significantly more likely to graduate from college and, as young adults, to volunteer in their communities. The hours per week kids devote to extracurriculars also predict having a job (as opposed to being unemployed as a young adult) and earning more money, but only for kids who participate in activities for two years rather than one.

One of the first scientists to study the importance of following through with extracurricular activities—as opposed to just dabbling—was Warren Willingham.

In 1978, Willingham was the director of the Personal Qualities Project. Even today, this study remains the most ambitious attempt ever to identify the determinants of success in young adulthood.

The project was funded by the Educational Testing Service. ETS, as it’s more commonly called, occupies a sprawling campus in Princeton, New Jersey, and employs more than a thousand statisticians, psychologists, and other scientists—all devoted to the development of tests that predict achievement in school and the workplace. If you’ve taken the SAT, you’ve taken an ETS test. Ditto for the GRE, TOEFL, Praxis, and any one of three dozen advanced placement exams. Basically, ETS is to standardized testing what Kleenex is to tissues: Sure, there are other organizations that make standardized tests, but most of us are hard-pressed to think of their names.

So, what motivated ETS to look beyond standardized tests?

Better than anyone, Willingham and other scientists at ETS knew that, together, high school grades and test scores did only a half-decent job of predicting success later in life. It’s very often the case that two kids with identical grades and test scores will end up faring very differently later in life. The simple question Willingham set out to answer was What other personal qualities matter?

To find out, Willingham’s team followed several thousand students for five years, beginning in their senior year of high school.

At the start of the study, college application materials, questionnaires, writing samples, interviews, and school records were collected for each student. This information was used to produce numerical ratings for more than one hundred different personal characteristics. These included family background variables, like parent occupation and socioeconomic status, as well as self-declared career interests, motivation for a college degree, educational goals, and many more.

Then, as the students progressed through college, objective measures of success were collected across three broad categories: First, did the student distinguish him or herself academically? Next, as a young adult, did this individual demonstrate leadership? And, finally, to what extent could these young men and women point to a significant accomplishment in science and technology, the arts, sports, writing and speaking, entrepreneurism, or community service?

In a sense, the Personal Qualities Project was a horse race. Each of the hundred-plus measures at the start of the study could have ended up as the strongest predictor of later success. It’s clear from reading the first report, completed several years before the final data were collected, that Willingham was entirely dispassionate on the issue. He methodically described each variable, its rationale for being included, how it was measured, and so on.

But when all the data were finally in, Willingham was unequivocal and emphatic about what he’d learned. One horse did win, and by a long stretch: follow-through.

This is how Willingham and his team put a number on it: “The follow-through rating involved evidence of purposeful, continuous commitment to certain types of activities (in high school) versus sporadic efforts in diverse areas.”

Students who earned a top follow-through rating participated in two different high school extracurricular activities for several years each and, in both of those activities, advanced significantly in some way (e.g., becoming editor of the newspaper, winning MVP for the volleyball team, winning a prize for artwork). As an example, Willingham described a student who was “on his school newspaper staff for three years and became managing editor, and was on the track team for three years and ended up winning an important meet.”

In contrast, students who hadn’t participated in a single multiyear activity earned the lowest possible follow-through rating. Some students in this category didn’t participate in any activities at all in high school. But many, many others were simply itinerant, joining a club or team one year but then, the following year, moving on to something entirely different.

The predictive power of follow-through was striking: After controlling for high school grades and SAT scores, follow-through in high school extracurriculars predicted graduating from college with academic honors better than any variable. Likewise, follow-through was the single best predictor of holding an appointed or elected leadership position in young adulthood. And, finally, better than any of the more than one hundred personal characteristics Willingham had measured, follow-through predicted notable accomplishments for a young adult in all domains, from the arts and writing to entrepreneurism and community service.

Notably, the particular pursuits to which students had devoted themselves in high school didn’t matter—whether it was tennis, student government, or debate team. The key was that students had signed up for something, signed up again the following year, and during that time had made some kind of progress.

I learned about the Personal Qualities Project a few years after I started studying grit. When I got my hands on the original study report, I read it cover to cover, put it down for a moment, and then started again on page one.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I lay awake thinking: Holy smokes! What Willingham calls “follow-through” sounds a lot like grit!

Immediately—desperately—I wanted to see if I could replicate his findings.

One motive was practical.

Like any self-report questionnaire, the Grit Scale is ridiculously fakeable. In research studies, participants have no real incentive to lie, but it’s hard to imagine using the Grit Scale in a high-stakes setting where, in fact, there’s something to gain by pretending that “I finish whatever I begin.” Quantifying grit as Willingham had done was a measurement strategy that could not easily be gamed. Not, at least, without outright lying. In Willingham’s own words: “Looking for clear signs of productive follow-through is a useful way to mine the student’s track record.”

But the more important goal was to see whether follow-through would predict the same showing-up-instead-of-dropping-out outcomes that are the hallmark of grit.

For the support of a new longitudinal study, I turned to the largest philanthropic funder in education: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I soon learned that the foundation is especially interested in why college students drop out in such large numbers. At present, the dropout rate for two- and four-year colleges in the United States is among the highest in the world. Escalating tuitions and the byzantine labyrinth of financial aid in this country are two contributing factors. Woefully inadequate academic preparation is another. Still, students with similar financial circumstances and identical SAT scores drop out at very different rates. Predicting who will persist through college and earn their degree and who won’t is among the most stubborn problems in all of social science. Nobody has a very satisfying answer.

In a meeting with Bill and Melinda Gates, I had an opportunity to explain my perspective in person. Learning to follow through on something hard in high school, I said, seemed the best-possible preparation for doing the same thing later in life.

In that conversation, I learned that Bill himself has long appreciated the importance of competencies other than talent. Back in the days when he had a more direct role in hiring software programmers at Microsoft, for instance, he said he’d give applicants a programming task he knew would require hours and hours of tedious troubleshooting. This wasn’t an IQ test, or a test of programming skills. Rather, it was a test of a person’s ability to muscle through, press on, get to the finish line. Bill only hired programmers who finished what they began.

With generous support from the Gates Foundation, I recruited 1,200 seniors and, just as Willingham had done, asked them to name their extracurricular activities (if they had any), when they’d participated in them, and how they’d distinguished themselves doing them, if at all. Around the lab, while we were doing this study, we began calling this measure what it looks like: the Grit Grid.

Directions: Please list activities in which you spent a significant amount of time outside of class. They can be any kind of pursuit, including sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer activities, research/academic activities, paid work, or hobbies. If you do not have a second or third activity, please leave those rows blank:


Grade levels of participation 9-10-11-12

Achievements, awards, leadership positions, if any




Following Willingham’s lead, my research team calculated Grit Grid scores by quantifying multiyear commitment and advancement in up to two activities.

Specifically, each activity students did for two years or more earned a grit point; activities students did for only one year earned no points and weren’t scored further. Activities that students pursued for multiple years and in which they could point to some kind of advancement (for example, member of the student government one year and treasurer the next) each earned a second point. Finally, when advancement could reasonably be deemed “high” versus just “moderate” (president of the student body, MVP of the basketball team, employee of the month), we awarded a third grit point.

In sum, students could score anywhere from zero on the Grit Grid (if they’d participated in no multiyear commitments at all) to six points (if they pursued two different multiyear commitments and, in both, demonstrated high achievement).

As expected, we found that students with higher Grit Grid scores rated themselves higher in grit, and so did their teachers.

Then we waited.

After graduating from high school, students in our sample ended up at dozens of colleges throughout the country. After two years, only 34 percent of the 1,200 students in our study were enrolled in a two- or four-year college. Just as we expected, the odds of staying in school depended heavily on Grit Grid scores: 69 percent of students who scored 6 out of 6 on the Grit Grid were still in college. In contrast, just 16 percent of students who scored 0 out 6 were still on track to get their college degrees.

In a separate study, we applied the same Grit Grid scoring system to the college extracurriculars of novice teachers. The results were strikingly similar. Teachers who, in college, had demonstrated productive follow-through in a few extracurricular commitments were more likely to stay in teaching and, furthermore, were more effective in producing academic gains in their students. In contrast, persistence and effectiveness in teaching had absolutely no measurable relationship with teachers’ SAT scores, their college GPAs, or interviewer ratings of their leadership potential.

Considered together, the evidence I’ve presented so far could be interpreted in two different ways. I’ve been arguing that extracurricular activities are a way for young people to practice, and therefore develop passion and perseverance, for long-term goals. But it’s also possible that following through with extracurriculars is something only gritty people do. These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive: it’s entirely possible that both factors—cultivation and selection—are at play.

My best guess is that following through on our commitments while we grow up both requires grit and, at the same time, builds it.

One reason I think so is that, in general, the situations to which people gravitate tend to enhance the very characteristics that brought us there in the first place. This theory of personality development has been dubbed the corresponsive principle by Brent Roberts, the foremost authority on what leads to enduring changes in how people think, feel, and act in different situations.

When Brent was a psychology graduate student at Berkeley, the prevailing view was that, after childhood, personalities are more or less “set like plaster.” Brent and other personality researchers have since collected enough longitudinal data—following, literally, thousands of people across years and decades—to show that personalities do, in fact, change after childhood.

Brent and other personality researchers have found that a key process in personality development involves situations and personality traits reciprocally “calling” each other. The corresponsive principle suggests that the very traits that steer us toward certain life situations are the very same traits that those situations encourage, reinforce, and amplify. In this relationship there is the possibility of virtuous and vicious cycles.

For instance, in one study, Brent and his collaborators followed a thousand adolescents in New Zealand as they entered adulthood and found jobs. Over the years, hostile adolescents ended up in lower-prestige jobs and reported difficulties paying their bills. These conditions, in turn, led to increases in levels of hostility, which further eroded their employment prospects. By contrast, more agreeable adolescents entered a virtuous cycle of psychological development. These “nice kids” secured higher-status jobs offering greater financial security—outcomes that enhanced their tendency toward sociability.

So far, there hasn’t been a corresponsive principle study of grit.

Let me speculate, though. Left to her own devices, a little girl who, after failing to open a box of raisins and saying to herself, “This is too hard! I quit!” might enter a vicious cycle that reinforces giving up. She might learn to give up one thing after another, each time missing the opportunity to enter the virtuous cycle of struggle, followed by progress, followed by confidence to try something even harder.

But what about a little girl whose mother takes her to ballet, even though it’s hard? Even though the little girl doesn’t really feel like putting on her leotard at that moment, because she’s a little tired. Even though, at the last practice, her ballet teacher scolded her for holding her arms the wrong way, which clearly stung a bit. What if that little girl was nudged to try and try again and, at one practice, experienced the satisfaction of a breakthrough? Might that victory encourage the little girl to practice other difficult things? Might she learn to welcome challenge?

The year after Warren Willingham published the Personal Qualities Project, Bill Fitzsimmons became the dean of admissions at Harvard.

Two years later, when I applied to Harvard, it was Bill who reviewed my application. I know because, at some point as an undergraduate, I found myself involved in a community service project with Bill. “Oh, Miss School Spirit!” he exclaimed when we were introduced. And then he ticked off, with remarkable accuracy, the various activities I’d pursued in high school.

I recently called Bill to ask what he thought about extracurricular follow-through. Not surprisingly, he was intimately familiar with Willingham’s research.

“I have it here somewhere,” he said, seemingly scanning his bookshelf. “It’s never far from reach.”

Okay, so did he agree with Willingham’s conclusions? Did Harvard admissions really care about anything other than SAT scores and high school grades?

I wanted to know, because Willingham’s opinion, at the time he published his findings, was that college admissions offices weren’t weighing follow-through in extracurriculars as heavily as his research suggested they ought to be.

Each year, Bill Fitzsimmons explained, several hundred students are admitted to Harvard on the merits of truly outstanding academic credentials. Their early scholarly accomplishments suggest they will at some point become world-class academics.

But Harvard admits at least as many students who, in Bill’s words, “have made a commitment to pursue something they love, believe in, and value—and [have done] so with singular energy, discipline, and plain old hard work.”

Nobody in the admissions office wants or needs these students to pursue the same activities when they get to campus. “Let’s take athletics as an example,” Bill said. “Let’s say the person gets hurt, or decides not to play, or doesn’t make the team. What we have tended to find is that all that energy, drive, and commitment—all that grit—that was developed through athletics can almost always be transferred to something else.”

Bill assured me that, in fact, Harvard was paying the utmost attention to follow-through. After describing our more recent research confirming Willingham’s findings, he told me they are using a very similar rating scale: “We ask our admissions staff to do exactly what it appears you’re doing with your Grit Grid.”

This helped explain why he’d maintained such a clear memory, more than a year after he’d read my application, of how I’d spent my time outside of classes in high school. It was in my activities, as much as anything else in my record, that he found evidence that I’d prepared myself for the rigors—and opportunities—of college.

“My sense, from being in admissions for over forty years,” Bill concluded, “is that most people are born with tremendous potential. The real question is whether they’re encouraged to employ their good old-fashioned hard work and their grit, if you will, to its maximum. In the end, those are the people who seem to be the most successful.”

I pointed out that extracurricular follow-through might be a mere signal of grit, rather than something that would develop it. Bill agreed, but reaffirmed his judgment that activities aren’t just a signal. His intuition was that following through on hard things teaches a young person powerful, transferable lessons. “You’re learning from others, you’re finding out more and more through experience what your priorities are, you’re developing character.

“In some cases,” Bill continued, “students get into activities because somebody else, maybe the parent, maybe the counselor, suggests it. But what often happens is that these experiences are actually transformative, and the students actually learn something very important, and then they jump in and contribute to these activities in ways that they and their parents and their counselor never would’ve imagined.”

What surprised me most about my conversation with Bill was how much he worried about the kids who’d been denied the opportunity to practice grit in extracurricular activities.

“More and more high schools have diminished or eliminated arts and music and other activities,” Bill told me, and then explained that, of course, it was primarily schools serving poor kids who were making these cuts. “It’s the least level playing field one could possibly imagine.”

Research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his collaborators reveals that affluent American high school students have been participating in extracurricular activities at consistently high rates for the past few decades. In contrast, participation among poor students has been dropping precipitously.

The widening gap in extracurricular participation between rich and poor has a few contributing factors, Putnam explains. Pay-to-play sports activities like traveling soccer teams are one obstacle to equal participation. Even when participation is “free,” not all parents can afford the uniforms. Not all parents are able or willing to drive their kids to and from practices and games. For music, the cost of private lessons and instruments can be prohibitive.

Just as Putnam would have predicted, there is a worrisome correlation between family income and Grit Grid scores. On average, Grit Grid scores for the high school seniors in our sample who qualified for federally subsidized meals were a full point lower than those for students who were more privileged.

Like Robert Putnam, Geoffrey Canada is a Harvard-trained social scientist.

Geoff is about as gritty as they come. His passion is enabling kids growing up in poverty to realize their potential. Recently, Geoff has become something of a celebrity. But for decades he toiled in relative obscurity as the director of a radically intensive education program in New York City called the Harlem Children’s Zone. The first kids to make it all the way through are now in college, and the program’s unusually comprehensive approach, coupled with unusually successful results, has attracted national attention.

A few years ago, Geoff came to Penn to deliver our commencement speech. I managed to shoehorn a private meeting into his busy schedule. Given our limited time, I got straight to the point.

“I know you’re trained as a social scientist,” I began. “And I know there are things we have tons of evidence for and aren’t doing in education, and there are things we have no evidence for and keep doing anyway. But I want to know, from all you’ve seen and done, what you really think is the way to dig kids out of poverty.”

Geoff sat forward and put his hands together like he was about to pray. “I’ll tell you straight. I’m a father of four. I’ve watched many, many kids who were not my own grow up. I may not have the random-assignment, double-blind studies to prove it, but I can tell you what poor kids need. They need all the things you and I give to our own children. What poor kids need is a lot. But you can sum it up by saying that what they need is a decent childhood.”

About a year later, Geoff gave a TED talk, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience. Much of what Harlem Children’s Zone did, Canada explained, was based on rock-solid scientific evidence—preschool education, for instance, and summer enrichment activities. But there’s one thing his program provided without sufficient scientific evidence to justify the expense: extracurricular activities.

“You know why?” he asked. “Because I actually like kids.”

The audience laughed, and he said it again: “I actually like kids.”

“You’ve never read a study from MIT that says giving your kid dance instruction is going to help them do algebra better,” he admitted. “But you will give that kid dance instruction, and you will be thrilled that that kid wants to do dance instruction, and it will make your day.”

Geoffrey Canada is right. All the research I talked about in this chapter is nonexperimental. I don’t know if there’ll ever be a day when scientists figure out the logistics—and ethics—of randomly assigning kids to years of ballet class and then waiting to see if the benefit transfers to mastering algebra.

But, in fact, scientists have done short-term experiments testing whether doing hard things teaches a person to do other hard things.

Psychologist Robert Eisenberger at the University of Houston is the leading authority on this topic. He’s run dozens of studies in which rats are randomly assigned to do something hard—like press a lever twenty times to get a single pellet of rat chow—or something easy, like press that lever two times to get the same reward. Afterward, Bob gives all the rats a different difficult task. In experiment after experiment, he’s found the same results: Compared to rats in the “easy condition,” rats who were previously required to work hard for rewards subsequently demonstrate more vigor and endurance on the second task.

My favorite of Bob’s experiments is among his most clever. He noticed that laboratory rats are generally fed in one of two ways. Some researchers use wire-mesh hoppers filled with chow, requiring rats to gnaw at the food pellets through small openings in the mesh. Other researchers just scatter pellets on the floor of the cage. Bob figured that working for your supper, so to speak, might teach rats to work harder on an effortful training task. In fact, that’s exactly what he found. He began his experiment by training young rats to run down a narrow plank for a reward. Then, he divided the rats into two groups. One group lived in cages with hopper feeders, and the other in cages where food pellets were scattered about the floor. After a month of working to obtain food from the hopper, rats performed better on the runway task than rats who instead merely wandered over to their food when they were hungry.

Because his wife was a teacher, Bob had the opportunity to try short-term versions of the same experiments with children. For instance, in one study, he gave pennies to second and third graders for counting objects, memorizing pictures, and matching shapes. For some children, Bob rapidly increased the difficulty of these tasks as the children improved. Other children were repeatedly given easy versions of the same tasks.

All the children got pennies and praise.

Afterward, the children in both conditions were asked to do a tedious job that was entirely different from the previous tasks: copying a list of words onto a sheet of paper. Bob’s findings were exactly the same as what he’d found with rats: children who’d trained on difficult (rather than easy) tasks worked harder on the copying task.

Bob’s conclusion? With practice, industriousness can be learned.

In homage to the earlier work of Seligman and Maier on learned helplessness, where the inability to escape punishment led animals to give up on a second challenging task, Bob dubbed this phenomenon learned industriousness. His major conclusion was simply that the association between working hard and reward can be learned. Bob will go further and say that without directly experiencing the connection between effort and reward, animals, whether they’re rats or people, default to laziness. Calorie-burning effort is, after all, something evolution has shaped us to avoid whenever possible.

My daughter Lucy was still a baby when I first read Bob’s work on learned industriousness, and her sister, Amanda, was a toddler. With both girls, I soon discovered I was ill-suited to play the role Bob had in his experiments. It was difficult for me to create the necessary contingency for learning—in other words, an environment in which the acknowledged rule was If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you don’t, you won’t.

Indeed, I struggled to provide the sort of feedback I knew my children needed. I found myself enthusiastically praising them no matter what they did. And this is one of the reasons extracurricular activities offer superior playing fields for grit—coaches and teachers are tasked with bringing forth grit in children who are not their own.

At the ballet class where I dropped off the girls each week, there was a terrific teacher waiting to receive them. This teacher’s passion for ballet was infectious. She was every bit as supportive as I was, and, frankly, a heck of a lot more demanding. When a student ambled in late to class, they got a stern lecture about the importance of respecting other people’s time. If a student forgot to wear their leotard that day, or left their ballet shoes at home, they sat and watched the other children for the entire class and weren’t allowed to participate. When a move was executed incorrectly, there were endless repetitions and adjustments until, at last, this teacher’s high standards were satisfied. Sometimes, these lessons were accompanied by short lectures on the history of ballet, and how each dancer is responsible for carrying on that tradition.

Harsh? I don’t think so. High standards? Absolutely.

And so it was in ballet class, more than at home, that Lucy and Amanda got to rehearse developing an interest, diligently practice things they couldn’t yet do, appreciate the beyond-the-self purpose of their efforts, and, when bad days eventually became good ones, acquire the hope to try, try again.

In our family, we live by the Hard Thing Rule. It has three parts. The first is that everyone—including Mom and Dad—has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice. I’ve told my kids that psychological research is my hard thing, but I also practice yoga. Dad tries to get better and better at being a real estate developer; he does the same with running. My oldest daughter, Amanda, has chosen playing the piano as her hard thing. She did ballet for years, but later quit. So did Lucy.

This brings me to the second part of the Hard Thing Rule: You can quit. But you can’t quit until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other “natural” stopping point has arrived. You must, at least for the interval to which you’ve committed yourself, finish whatever you begin. In other words, you can’t quit on a day when your teacher yells at you, or you lose a race, or you have to miss a sleepover because of a recital the next morning. You can’t quit on a bad day.

And, finally, the Hard Thing Rule states that you get to pick your hard thing. Nobody picks it for you because, after all, it would make no sense to do a hard thing you’re not even vaguely interested in. Even the decision to try ballet came after a discussion of various other classes my daughters could have chosen instead.

Lucy, in fact, cycled through a half-dozen hard things. She started each with enthusiasm but eventually discovered that she didn’t want to keep going with ballet, gymnastics, track, handicrafts, or piano. In the end, she landed on viola. She’s been at it for three years, during which time her interest has waxed rather than waned. Last year, she joined the school and all-city orchestras, and when I asked her recently if she wanted to switch her hard thing to something else, she looked at me like I was crazy.

Next year, Amanda will be in high school. Her sister will follow the year after. At that point, the Hard Thing Rule will change. A fourth requirement will be added: each girl must commit to at least one activity, either something new or the piano and viola they’ve already started, for at least two years.

Tyrannical? I don’t believe it is. And if Lucy’s and Amanda’s recent comments on the topic aren’t disguised apple-polishing, neither do my daughters. They’d like to grow grittier as they get older, and, like any skill, they know grit takes practice. They know they’re fortunate to have the opportunity to do so.

For parents who would like to encourage grit without obliterating their children’s capacity to choose their own path, I recommend the Hard Thing Rule.